Unsigned bills a factor in filling Senate vacancy

Senate quorum would make 67 bills law without governor’s signature

By: - August 26, 2021 7:02 am
Stephen Sweeney speaking

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said the number of unsigned bills approved by the Legislature is a factor in his not seating the Republican senator-select. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s refusal to seat a new Republican senator was met with claims of partisan politics by GOP senators Wednesday, but the consequences of calling the senate back into session likely share some blame.

If the Senate meets with a quorum to swear in Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic) to fill a vacancy, dozens of bills sitting on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk would become law automatically. In an interview, Sweeney said that’s a factor here.

“It is a consideration, not the main consideration,” Sweeney told the New Jersey Monitor. “The main consideration is when I left in June, we said we would be back November 4th. It’s that simple.”

In June, legislative leaders in both chambers said they would not return to Trenton until after the election. Brown did not leave the legislature until late July.

Polistina was chosen by Atlantic County Republican committee members to replace Republican former state Sen. Chris Brown, who stepped down in July to join the Murphy administration. Polistina is running against Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) in November to win a full term in the upper chamber.

Polistina was administered the oath of office Monday by retired Superior Court Judge Joseph Kane. Republicans say the swearing-in is valid and attacked Democratic leaders for not recognizing him as a senator.

“The only reason to deny Polistina and the residents of the 2nd District the same opportunity may boil down to nothing more than partisan politics,” said Senate Minority Whip Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris). “The residents of the district deserve to have Senate representation, especially now during the health emergency declared by the governor.”

The political reasons for Democrats not seating Polistina are obvious: Incumbency would lend the Egg Harbor Township resident an advantage over Mazzeo in what political observers believe is a competitive race.

But the unsigned bills on the governor’s desk could prove a bigger roadblock for Polistina.

In New Jersey, bills that sit on the governor’s desk for more than 45 days become law when the chamber they originated in next meets for a quorum.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 67 bills that originated in the Senate were sitting unsigned on Murphy’s desk. Each of those bills has been there since at least June 30, when the Senate last held a voting session. That was 57 days ago.

The rule rarely comes into play but has occasionally served as a deadline for lawmakers, including earlier this year when the Assembly was forced to delay a quorum to give legislators more time to negotiate legislation enabling the state’s legal marijuana market.

Calling a quorum now would create friction with Murphy, who has signed a relatively small number of bills approved in June over the past two months and is heading Democratic tickets across the state this November.

There’s also the question of whether a quorum is actually required. Polistina insists it isn’t, but Jason Krajewski, counsel for the Office of Legislative Services, told Politico New Jersey earlier this month that valid oaths of office can be administered only when the Senate leader has called a quorum.

Provisions in the Senate’s rules and state constitution say the chamber is the “judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its members,” meaning the chamber has ultimate say over its membership, but they do not say a quorum is required.

That’s little solace to Republican leaders or constituents in the 2nd Legislative District who are currently without a senator.

“To not resolve this matter immediately would be to deny the people of the 2nd Legislative District the representation they desperately need and deserve during this incredibly challenging time,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union).

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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